Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Heather Ann Thompson sees Detroit as central for carceral reformHistorians in the News
tags: Detroit, Mass Incarceration, Heather Ann Thompson, carceral reform
University of Michigan professor Heather Ann Thompson, whose family moved to Detroit when she was a teen, is an acclaimed historian who received the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in History for her book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.
Raised primarily in Detroit’s North Rosedale Park neighborhood, Thompson considers the city a great influence in her work to understand race relations, mass incarceration, and America’s justice system. After graduating from U-M with her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in History, she completed her PhD at Princeton University before teaching at UNC Charlotte and Temple University. She returned to U-M in 2015 as a full-time professor.
Thompson co-founded U-M’s Carceral State Project, an organization created to understand and combat mass incarceration through collaboration between academia and community organizations. The project recently received an important grant from U-M’s Humanities Collaboratory to begin the Documenting Criminalization and Confinement initiative. This endeavor will be the first comprehensive qualitative and quantitative report on criminalization and the conditions of confinement in America.
How did growing up in Detroit influence your work?
Thompson: Growing up in Detroit, particularly in the late 1970s and early 80s, you couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to the city. There was a lot of social dislocation and economic devastation. Every newspaper article written about the city was negative, and it was reviled by every pundit. It struck me that there was something deeply racialized in their interpretation. So when I got to U-M as an undergraduate, I very much wanted to understand the city that I had come from. Even then, I realized that understanding what Detroit had gone through, both good and bad, was a means of understanding other cities around the country. I actually grew up there and, thus, came at it from a very particular vantage point. Growing up as a white kid in an overwhelmingly black city very much impacted my perspective of the city. For example, others were writing about the collapse of the city, but to me, it was always the site of extraordinary black accomplishment and success, and I wanted to understand the roots of that.
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